Theater review: Original script adds new life to classic 'A Christmas Carol'
For its last production on the Depot's main stage, the Duluth Playhouse not only selected a timeless holiday classic, they also came up with the first original script to grace that stage in almost 20 years. "A Christmas Carol" opened Thursday night to an audience eager to applaud.
As Ebenezer Scrooge, Michael Kraklio has a frozen sourpuss face, spitting out one bitter epigram after another, contemptuous of the very idea of "Christian cheer," and punctuating his offensive remarks by slamming his hand or cane. Most of the laughs he gets are deservedly at his own expense until his fateful transformation, when we gladly laugh with him.
"A Christmas Carol" is a well-known tale and everybody has their personal favorite version ("Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" for me). With this original script, first drafted by director Jeffrey Madison, revised by Shad Olsen, and then rewritten in tandem, I was looking for what "new" things could they come up with.
First off, there is the music. Carolers sing before the show starts and songs are strategically inserted into the narrative, along with wordless voices off-stage. As Tiny Tim, Cadence Graber is appropriately adorable declaring "God bless us, every one!" But when she starts singing the 18th-century carol "O Come Little Children," it will absolutely melt any heart two sizes too small.
The music is all a cappella except for the two fiddle players who accompany the spirited dancing at Fezziwig's Christmas party. The "O Come Little Children"/"Tis the Gift to Be Simple" combination before intermission is beautiful, and the evening's final song was clearly selected to end the evening on the perfect word.
Second, there are the exceedingly dramatic arrivals of Scrooge's ghostly visitors, ably abetted by Jeff Brown's atmospheric lighting. The buildup to the appearance of Marley's ghost (Mike Pederson) is quite impressive.
Then Scrooge's dead partner explodes into a fiery litany of what his business in life should have been before uttering the scariest line this side of Scripture: "I wear the chains I forged in life." The show's best new line is Marley's devastating rebuke to Scrooge, "You have never given and have been unwilling to receive."
Gabe Mayfield's Ghost of Christmas Present looks like the mythical Green Man incarnate, speaking deeply and carrying a really big stick. Louisa Scorich magically appears on stage as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and when she returns as the Spirit of Christmas Yet to Come (shades of Mary Surratt) we are already in the grim future awaiting the unrepentant Scrooge. Even his tombstone dramatically appears on cue.
Paying attention to how people from Scrooge's past and future show up as different characters in his present pays some dividends. The quartet of cackling reapers were quite funny, while the family of Bob Cratchit (Adam Sippola) were quite sweet.
Curtis Phillips designed five shop buildings that look like they belong in one of those olde English Christmas villages people collect, while the cast is bedecked in gorgeous Dickensian outfits by Jean Olson and her crew of pixies, which combine to make this show picture-perfect.
If you go
What: "A Christmas Carol," adapted from the Charles Dickens novella
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 17th
Where: Duluth Playhouse, 506 W. Michigan St.
Tickets: $40 adults, $20 youth at duluthplayhouse.org.